Close, very close
Marjorie Perloff is one of our best readers of poetry, one of those critics whose interpretive craft is always compelling to follow. She has not only kept practical criticism relevant, she has shown that it can be renewed even in the close reading of the most refractory modernist poems. This commitment to close reading has required nerve. Even critics sympathetic to the modernist avant-garde can be opposed to such a critical strategy: close reading, they say, is mere pedagogy; it views the text through lenses tinted with undeclared ideological commitments; it finds in even a multitudinous text just a few devices and deconstructions; it is ahistorical; or it is too historical, too closely rooted in the historical moment of the reader.
Despite such pressures to abandon close reading, Perloff has held fast. Close reading enables her to affirm the fundamental intelligibility of poems, and locate this intelligibility in the logical space of reasons, the embodied space of empathy, and in a long and many-sided poetic tradition.
Avant-garde poetry has repeatedly been dismissed as nonsense. Perloff adapted the techniques of practical criticism that she learned from an earlier generation of literary critics (and initially practiced on Robert Lowell’s poetry) to the task of arguing that such dismissals ignore the emergence of new forms of intelligibility. Her incisive reading of Gertrude Stein’s “Susie Asado” (1913) employs prosodic analysis, knowledge of other languages, analysis of syntax as well as semantics, plus biographical information, to demonstrate that such a seemingly abstract, unintelligible text can be rendered lucid. “Skeptical readers will object at this point, arguing that texts like Susie Asado are unnecessarily obscure, unreadable, and boring, that Stein fails to communicate a coherent meaning to the reader. The line between sense and non-sense is, of course, a narrow one. Remove all vestiges of reference and the text collapses into a series of empty sounds.”
It is characteristic of Perloff’s independence as a critic that she rightly talks of reference and not the fashionable concept of a “play of signifiers,” which implies that interpretive rigor would be misplaced. She gives the last word on this issue to another poet: the poem “becomes, in John Ashbery’s words, a ‘hymn to possibility.’” Ashbery’s witty review of Donald Sutherland’s edition of Stein’s Stanzas in Meditation calls the poem “a celebration of the fact that the world exists, that things can happen,” even though the text “sometimes makes no sense and sometimes makes perfect sense.” The implication is that it takes close reading to discern this realism of reference in Stein’s text.
No phoneme, no allusion, should go unheeded in a close reading. Writing about the challenge of teaching Rae Armantrout’s poetry in the classroom, Perloff makes explicit the assumptions on which her discussion is founded: “First, that any serious poem, however disjointed and ‘nonsensical,’ is meaningful. Second, that the poem’s meanings are never quite paraphraseable, never univocal […] And third, that the only way to get at the poem is in fact to read it, word for word, line by line […] a close reading — and there is no other way to understand poetry […] has to account for all the elements in a given text, not just the ones that support a particular interpretation. From this perspective, we read Armantrout’s poem as we would any other, whether ‘experimental’ or conventional, contemporary or Renaissance.” The modernist or avant-garde text is part of a much larger history of poetry whose relevance we must not lose sight of.
In her later critical writing, Perloff reflects on the risks inherent in close reading. Lyn Hejinian’s Oxota, Perloff says, “actively engages us in the poet’s own ‘hunt’ for meaning.” A trap awaits the hunter though. “If we read Oxota as a self-enclosed text, its ‘obscure points’ and ‘arbitrary elements’ will look like ‘mere examples of the freedom of expression.” I would add that this raises a doubt. Can these tiny elements of prosody, etymology, and other verbal brushstrokes really be so important?
This is a dilemma eloquently described by Jay Bernstein in a discussion of how — given the demands we make on art that it should be more than simply entertainment — we can possibly assign significant cultural value to features such as brush strokes in an abstract painting: “It must seem an insult to commitments to justice and a travesty of the feelings that support such commitments […] that the intelligibility and validity of those commitments and feelings should be thought to hang on or be found in just ‘this’ painting or ‘this’ urgent brushstroke of red.” Bernstein’s answer is that the apparent “disproportion” between “the unjust ruination of human lives” and “the velleities of some cultural artifacts on the other” can best be understood as an aesthetic struggle to revalue sensuous experience.
Perloff puts her confidence in what I have called the intelligibility of every verbal note and brushstroke. “Once writing is no longer regarded as the vehicle that conveys an already present speech, every word, indeed every morpheme can be seen to carry meaning, to enter relationships with its neighbors […] and syntax is at least as important as the invention of striking images”; and that “it is reference, not representation, that we cannot do without.” Good close readers do not neglect even the smallest brushstrokes in the poem; every part is intelligible, and this intelligibility connects to the world where lives as well as meanings are at stake. Another name for these interconnections is reference. Her extended, thoughtful practice of close reading is one of our richest sources of reflection on just what poetic reference entails.
 Perloff takes these quotations from Oxota: A Short Russian Novel (Great Barrington: The Figures, 1992). Marjorie Perloff, Poetry On & Off the Page: Essays for Emergent Occasions (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1998), 223, 225.